Taking Social Class Seriously

The key advantage of the device of the blog, it seems to me, is that you can think aloud, articulate views that are only partially formed, and circumnavigate peer review. Ok, so it is easier if (a) you are retired and off the roller coaster and/or (b) you are disinclined to be intimidated or constrained in what you say. So what follows represents an ongoing project, what is usually offered under the rubric of ‘work in progress’.

I have signaled my reservations about colleagues’ operationalisations of social class, mainly under the aegis of occupation-based ‘socio-economic classificatory systems. David Rose has rightly insisted that it is in part a matter of horses for courses: the subtle NS-SEC schema, for example, allows for a range of questions concerning social mobility and so on to be credibly addressed. My qualms are to do with those questions that cannot presently be posed of data yielded by all such schema.

I have argued for the best part of a decade that some of the most urgent challenges confronting UK sociology are focused on questions that cannot be broached or answered using data from the present array of published schema. For me, these are concentrated on a very small and select population, certainly less than the 1% pinpointed by the Occupy Movement. The members of this population comprise what I call the governing oligarchy: namely, the hard core of (transnational) capital owners and the (national) political elite whose ‘cooperation’ they purchase (in my earlier formulation, the ‘greedy bastards’).

What I have termed financial capitalism’s revised class/command dynamic asserts that the select ‘cabalistic’ owners of capital get more for their underwriting or sponsorship of the political elite than was the case in the immediate postwar ‘welfare-statist’ era.

So what would a breakdown of social class relations that captured something of this dynamic look like? I draw on but use/abuse Clement and Myles’ frame in what follows:

CAPITALIST EXECUTIVE (significant, largely transnational and ‘detached’ owners of capital)                        

(a) Hard core (heavy capital-owners who are ‘players’)

(b) Soft auxiliary core (heavy capital-owners who are non-players)

(c) Insider higher management (light capital-owners who support players)

NEW MIDDLE CLASS (managers in the service of capital)

(a) ‘Co-opted’ (higher/middle managers who support players)

(b) Outsider Higher management (higher managers, independent of players)

(c) Middle management (middle managers, independent of players) (precariat)

(d) ‘Aspirational’ (petit-bourgeoisie, independent of players) (precariat)

OLD MIDDLE CLASS (established professionals)

(a) ‘Co-opted’ (high-status professionals who support players) (precariat)

(b) Professional (high-status professionals, independent of players) (precariat)

(c) Semi-professional (other professionals, independent of players (precariat)

WORKING CLASS (waged workers)

(a) ‘Co-opted’ (supervisory) (waged workers, support players) (precariat)

(b) White-collar (waged non-manual workers, independent of players) (precariat)

(c) Blue-collar (waged manual workers, independent of players) (precariat)

(d) Other manual (waged semi- and unskilled manual workers, independent of players) (precariat)

A few themes here require further explication (and the whole apparatus would obviously benefit from informed critique).

Within the capital executive there exists a hard core of heavy ‘globalised’ capital owners personally committed to the enhancement of their capital (or material) assets. I define these as ‘detached’ This fraction of the 1% constitutes the class driver for order/change, exercising its will through the offices of those in the political elite, whose members have mostly been recruited or are allied to the capital executive. The governing oligarchy’s personnel are – and this is the key sociological point – surfers of a revised class structuring of UK society in financial capitalism (which is, as intersectionalists remind us, also structured by gender, ethnicity and so on).

I have made a distinction between supporters and non-supporters of players. This is important because the less than 1% critically ‘rely on’ the co-option of others in the capital executive, new and old middle classes and even the working class. This is not a matter of electoral or infrastructural support but of a compact of interest. These are people – from managers and accountants to lawyers and physicians to supervisors and union officials – whose cooperation with the governing oligarchy has been directly or indirectly hired or bought: they profit from the liaison.

The term ‘precariat’ appears in parentheses. I do not accept, as the Great British Class Survey would have it, that Standing’s precariat is a class in- let alone or for- itself. But I certainly accept that there is an structural and cultural precariousness associated with financial capitalism. I here regard this as a cross-class matter placing an emboldened question mark after the security and well being of most members of the new, old and working classes (90+% of the population as a whole?). Relatively few UK citizens, I maintain, can anticipate their futures with sanguinity. So my employment of ‘precariat’ acknowledges this insecurity without making the ‘error’ of discovering a new class”.

That’s enough for now. I would certainly appreciate constructive criticism.

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